by Kristine Ong Muslim
Death Wish Billy
His legs were cut short.
His stride, insignificant.
He would never reach
the end of this tunnel.
He would have disguised
himself as an orphan, a child.
He would knock on our doors
if only he had learned to curl
his claws into fists. He would
ask to be let in as his only source
of sky was depleting. But we built
our houses so that the facades
would not resemble houses.
We had to confuse him, to let
him enter the wrong doors,
to lure him to the basement
where the black mold
and old parchment paper
took on the wrong forms
and preyed on small creatures.
As a Child
Before we read his name in the headlines
and before half of the jury cried when his
only surviving victim was put on the stand
and before he was electrocuted so we could
forget about how he had used his hands,
he was a child once, lived in a small house
in a small town by the lake. Nobody abused him
no matter what his lawyer said. He crushed
butterfly wings while his little sister cried and
yelled for him to stop hurting, to stop hurting.
He used to cut his hands at night and watched in awe
how the blood turned darker when left to dry.
It was a sight he never forgot. The pain
from the wound never bothered him; pain was
a luxury, a gift. In church, he imagined his body
vibrating with the piano, understood the secrets
of tautly pulled strings and the keys that rammed
against them. He dreamed of strings many times
before he finally used one as an adult. Eighteen times.
Then they caught him. He used a knife that time.
It was an accident. He went to summer camp,
ate a bug when he thought nobody was looking,
but then a strange thing happened, and he watched
himself from a distance swallow the dry crackling
thing down, down his throat where he believed
all gods were smothered. He believed that a string
tied around the neck could free the god and save
the host from choking in the god’s screams.
He did not tell anyone about that time when he suddenly
saw the utter clarity of things. Even the grass below him
breathed. He did not want people to think he was crazy.
A handful of television static was not a bad thing.
He observed his mother in the kitchen today,
understood that knives depended on the hands
that wielded them. He let a fly settle onto his palm;
the creature fascinated him—it dragged morsels
of the dead in its tiny legs. His cousin shooed it away.
“You’re so weird, you know that,” his cousin said.
And he did not know. He did not think it was all right
to whisk the fly away. His mother told him to wash
his hands, and the water was cold and elusive—
always avoiding his grasp, always attracted to the throat
of the drain, that dark, filthy small town repository.
The next day at the lake, he told his cousin a secret:
the hinges rust every time you hold the door open
to strangers, but the rust gets scraped off when the door
is locked. His cousin laughed. “You really are nuts,”
his cousin said. And the lake before them was a sliver
of light. It heard his cousin’s laughter and became still.
He wanted to be like that—a surface of light that would
not flinch. Silent, silent beautiful film of light. He smiled
at his cousin. To facilitate drowning, he held his cousin’s
head down much, much longer than necessary until it was
all right to let go. Everybody believed it was an accident.
Salt kept the wildness in check, reminded him of home.
He smeared a handful of salt against the crisscross
of superficial cuts on his palm, and he heard instead of felt
the pain spread across his arm. It was wildfire—the sizzle
of pain as it followed the axis signaling the vulnerable
hemispheres of the body. He would have to wash away the salt
before dinnertime. His mother had taught him that far—
to never talk to strangers, to never skip Sunday Mass,
to never slouch, to never ask for more than what was given,
to never tug at the tablecloth, to never forget to say grace
before every meal, to say “please” when asking for the potatoes,
to not partake of any variations of the same hunger.
Today, he heard the word autistic from his Aunt Marcia.
She was talking in the kitchen, and he understood
by the abundance of pauses and restrained gasps
that they were talking about him. Knowing which
of the steps creaked, he tiptoed down the stairs,
caught a glimpse of his mother. She was crying,
was making tattered roses out of the table napkins.
Did he do anything wrong? Did he let her down again?
He went up the stairs, followed the parallel paths of light
offered by the blinds onto the floor. He thought he saw
his bedroom door open on its own. Somebody wanted in.
Somebody was lost. Somebody wanted to be found.
When he closed the door, his hands started to shake.
When he closed the door, he dirtied the wood with his grasp.
A year later, he discovered how a knife could still his hands.
There was a time when he wanted to stop,
when no door was wider than the one he held
in his hand. He remembered the story
about the murderer who hid the bodies
under his tongue; those bodies did not exist.
At twenty, he still believed that he was
a lost fragment of a hate letter.
He knew how it was to love.
The Creator of Tongues
All tongues were grafted in places
where they could learn to deceive:
Voices, he told the jury. They made me
do it. And they believed him, sent him
to the asylum that was supposed
to end his corruption of flesh.
Snow existed only in his imagination,
but it chilled just the same. The orderly
complained about the draft in his room.
Nobody could find its source. Two days later,
he ate the heart of another patient.
Then he called his room a bone garden,
where a compass point dangled to his will.
You should have killed me earlier, while you
still could. The shackles held him for a while.
His cell was found empty the next morning,
the lock intact. And every Sunday, he brought
an offering to the mental hospital’s director,
placed it under the brass plaque: a handful
of seeds, fingers, grass, eyes, love.